In a week that a senior administration official hurled juvenile slurs at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tensions in the Middle East escalated into a big-league crisis with a terrorist attack on a U.S. citizen.
The reaction from the administration was the predictable call for everyone to calm down and de-escalate tensions — along with pointing a finger at Israel for escalation.
Yehuda Glick, a U.S.-born activist who has campaigned for the right of Jews to pray at the Temple Mount, was hit in a drive-by shooting Wednesday night after attending a conference about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Glick was shot four times, and the Jerusalem Post reported he was in serious but stable condition on Thursday night.
His suspected attacker, Moataz Hejazi, an Islamic Jihad member who spent more than 11 years behind bars, died in a shootout with police early Thursday. After he was released from prison two years ago Hejazi vowed to be “a thorn in the throat of the Zionist plan to Judaize Jerusalem.”
“The attempted murderer turned to him and confirmed in Hebrew, in a heavy Arabic accent, that it was Yehuda,” Moshe Feiglin, a Likud member of the Knesset, told reporters, according to Haaretz.
Israeli authorities temporarily closed the Temple Mount after the assassination attempt. Netanyahu spokesman Ofir Gendelman tweeted that it was “intended to reduce friction during this sensitive period & bring the situation back to normal.”
“After police security assessments made, Temple Mount open again after being closed today,” Israeli Police Superintendent Micky Rosenfeld tweeted a couple of hours later. “Police units still in Jerusalem this evening.”
That was enough for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to call it “a declaration of war.”
Presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh told CNN that closing the site was a “brazen challenge” that would lead to “further tensions and instability.” Islamic Jihad and Hamas called for a “battle of liberation” following Glick’s shooting.
Secretary of State John Kerry called on Israel to respect the mosque.
Without naming Glick, Kerry said in a statement this evening, “I strongly condemn yesterday’s shooting of a U.S. citizen outside the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.”
“I am extremely concerned by escalating tensions across Jerusalem and particularly surrounding the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. It is absolutely critical that all sides exercise restraint, refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric, and preserve the historic status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount – in word and in practice,” Kerry continued.
“The continued commitment by Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians to preserve the historic status quo at this holy site is critical; any decisions or actions to change it would be both provocative and dangerous,” he said. “The Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount must be re-opened to Muslim worshipers and I support the long-standing practices regarding non-Muslim visitors to the site, consistent with respect for the status quo arrangements governing religious observance there.”
Kerry said he was “in close touch with senior Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian leaders to try to de-escalate the situation.”
“I urge the leaders of all three parties to exercise decisive leadership and work cooperatively together to lower tensions and discourage violence, alleviate restrictions on Muslim worshipers, and reinvigorate long-standing coordination mechanisms and relationships that have served over the decades to preserve the historic status quo as it pertains to religious observance and access to the site.”
Press secretary Jen Psaki said much the same earlier in the day while briefing reporters.
“It’s consistently been the case that we believe that Muslim worshippers should be able to worship… a consistent position of the United States,” Psaki said.
Psaki said the U.S. condemned the shooting of Glick even though they disagree with him.
The Anti-Defamation League, though, issued a statement saying the security closure of the Temple Mount was “legitimate” given the “premeditated assassination attempt.”
“President Abbas’s inflammatory and irresponsible statement following Israel’s decision to close off the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque area, and his failure to condemn the shooting of Yehuda Glick, only serve to further fan the flames of this already volatile situation between Israel and the Palestinians,” ADL Director Abe Foxman said in a statement. “Mr. Abbas’ statements are nothing less than irresponsible.”
Netanyahu pulled together a special meeting of defense, law enforcement and justice officials on Thursday.
“A few days ago, I said that we were facing a wave of incitement by radical Islamic elements and by Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen who said that Jews must be prevented from going up to the Temple Mount by any means possible. I still have not heard from the international community so much as one word of condemnation for these inflammatory remarks,” Netanyahu said at the beginning of the meeting.
“The international community needs to stop its hypocrisy and take action against inciters, against those who try to change the status quo. I have ordered significant reinforcements so that we can maintain both security in Jerusalem and the status quo in the holy places,” the prime minister continued.
“This struggle might be long, and here, like in other struggles, we must first of all, lower the flames. No side should take the law into its own hands. We must be level-headed and act with determination and responsibility, and so we shall.”
Israel Economy Minister Naftali Bennett told CNN International that what’s needed is for the Palestinian leadership “to stop incitement, because they have been calling for these sorts of actions and indeed the words do kill.”
“Temple Mount is the most holy place for Jews in the entire world and it’s the third holiest location for Muslims. So we have to find a way where both religions can fully exercise their freedom to pray,” Bennett said. “That’s what we need to be striving for and that’s what I hope ultimately will happen.”
Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour accused Israel of “provocation.”
“When they bring settlers with the army and with the police to come to the Islamic compound of al-Aqsa Mosque, that is intensification the situation and incitement. Nobody is denying anyone al-Aqsa Mosque is always open for visitors. And agreements between Israel and us and the Jordanian authorities, that it is open for everyone but it is not open for except the Muslims to pray there,” Mansour said.
“You do not see Muslims praying in churches. You do not see Christians praying in Muslims’ mosques. They visit these places, but each would pray in their own holy site.”